Marilynne Robinson’s ‘When I Was a Child I Read Books’: Essays on faith, reading

May 14, 2012

If there is any fear that the fast-moving world of the Internet and the iPhone has destroyed our powers of concentration, or our ability to think lucidly and beautifully, or to create surprising and powerful designs from philosophical concerns, that fear will be put to rest by Marilynne Robinson’s new book of elegant essays.

The essay form provides us with a place to muse, question and consider. It’s both deeply intimate and openly public, a place for the most private ponderings and a platform from which to thunder forth polemics.

Robinson’s voice is thoughtful and intimate, but she does some thundering, too, on ancient, complex and important subjects, including our notions of God, public morality, generosity and frugality. She considers what books might mean to us, what loneliness is and how it might strengthen us. She asks, most fundamentally, “What are we, after all, we human beings?”

Robinson draws on a broad range of writers and thinkers, from Moses and Jesus, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, Poe and Whitman, as well as the contemporary theologians Jack Miles and Bishop John Shelby Spong.

“I have spent most of my life,” Robinson tells us, “studying American history and literature. . . . The magnanimity of [America’s] greatest laws and institutions as well as its finest poetry and philosophy move me very deeply. I know that there are numberless acts of generosity . . . carried out among its people every hour of the day. But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased.”


”When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

That observation is, of course, particularly timely in this election year, while we suffer through a travesty of the civil and constructive discourse that a democracy should offer. But Robinson’s intention is not to attack: She believes passionately in our country and its people, and she launches into an examination of the ideas that underlie its history.

She also explores something deeper and older: questions of the soul, the miraculous and the divine. Her ideas are unconventional, and she sees the world in surprising ways. She makes a profound connection, for instance, between religion and literature: “Literature and religion seem to have come into being together, if by literature I can be understood to include pre-literature, narrative whose purpose is to put human life, causality, and meaning in relation, to make each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other two.”

The idea that fiction has such a close and exalted relative is heady stuff for us fiction writers, but the book is full of such unexpected conjunctions.

Robinson reminds us of those things that religion and literature share: empathy, compassion, humanity and the presence of the soul. And she shows us where venerated science fails us, the point at which something else must take over: “There is no moment in which . . . science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that.”

In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” one of my favorite essays in this slim collection, Robinson takes issue with Christian scholars of Moses and the Old Testament: “It has been orthodox through most of Christian history to treat the Old Testament as rigid, benighted, greatly inferior to the Gospels . . . a tribal epic which includes the compendium of strange laws and fierce prohibitions [that] Jesus of Nazareth put aside when he established the dominion of grace.”

Robinson quotes Spong asserting that the Ten Commandments and the Torah have been revealed as “utter nonsense . . . nothing less than the tribal prejudices, stereotypes, and limited know­ledge of the people who created them.” In her taut, muscular and often scathing response, Robinson rebukes the scholars who make this dismissive claim and offers a deeply persuasive argument to show that the laws of Moses are generous, thoughtful, broad-minded and humane.

Robinson’s central theme, which resonates over and over in this powerful book, is the examination of the soul and of its central attributes: generosity, caritas, understanding. And also the examination of beauty, which is still a mystery to us, and of the miraculous presence of these things in the world, both within and without the spiritual construct of religion.

Taut, eloquent and often acerbically funny, these essays present a formidable response to slack scholarship, an indignant refutation of the policies of punitive frugality toward the poor and a challenge to anyone who denies the power, mystery and significance of the human soul. Robinson’s language is elegant and her reasoning precise, and reading these essays is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential and long-sought, even if we only realize it now.

Robinson (no relation to Marilynne) is a novelist and biographer. Her most recent book is the novel “Cost.”

WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS

By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 206 pp. $24

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